Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) neutralised Fabio Aru’s (Astana) every move on a thrilling stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, hanging on to his three second advantage over the Italian into the race’s final three stages.
Nicolas Roche (Team Sky), part of the large breakaway, outsprinted Trek’s Haimar Zubeldia for the stage win as the group of general classification favourites crossed the line together 38 seconds later.
It wasn’t for the lack of trying on Aru’s part, though, with the Astana rider attacking numerous times on the first category climb that came with 35km to race, but Dumoulin was not to be shaken from his wheel
Sitting 1-15 down on Dumoulin, Joaquim Rodriguez’s need to attack is much more severe than Aru’s and the Spaniard attempted to go up the road with Katusha teammate Angel Vicioso at at the start of the climb but to no avail.
Shortly after that attack Astana ramped up the pace in the peloton in an attempt to shake off Dumoulin’s support riders and leave him isolated before the final climb.
Meanwhile up ahead, Europcar’s Cyril Gautier, leaving for Ag2r La Mondiale at the end of the season, was staking his claim for the stage win by attacking off the breakaway group. That charge was later taken up by Roche, who was joined by Zubeldia over the top of the climb to start the descent towards the finish.
Back on the ascent, though, Aru tried time and time again to attack Dumoulin, but the Dutchman was not to be moved as if he was attached to the Italian’s bike by a rope.
With 19km to go, 15km to go and then near the top of the climb Aru got out of the saddle to try and pull away, but the red jersey was never far from his back wheel.
On the descent Roche and Zubeldia increased their lead to nearly a minute as Dumoulin, Aru, Quintana and co matched each other on the downhill.
With 5km to go the roads flattened out, with Dumoulin even finding himself a couple of dozen metres ahead of Aru at one point. Instead of eeking out more seconds on the Italian, Dumoulin instead sat up and waited to settle behind Aru’s wheel once more.
Even at the finish, after Roche settled the stage, Aru put his foot on the gas but Dumoulin nonchalantly wheeled over the line immediately after him to cross off another stage and take the race into the final three days.
Vuelta a España stage 18, Roa – Riaza (204km)
1. Nicolas Roche (Ire) Team Sky, 5-03-59
2. Haimar Zubeldia (Esp) Trek, st
3. Jose Goncalves (Esp) Caja Rural – Seguros RGA, at 18s
4. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 38s
5. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, st
6. Joaquim Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha, st
7. Pieter Serry (Bel) Etixx-Quick Step, st
8. Adam Hansen (Aus) Lotto-Soudal, st
9. Gianluca Brambilla (Ita) Etixx-Quick Step, st
10. Domenico Pozzovivo (Ita) Ag2r La Mondiale, st
Overall standings after 18 stages
1. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Giant-Alpecin, 73-45-13
2. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at 3s
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha, at 1-15
4. Rafal Majka (Pol) Tinkoff-Saxo, at 2-22
5. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 2-53
6. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 3-15
7. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, at 3-30
8. Dani Moreno (Esp) Katusha, at 3-46
9. Mikel Nieve (Esp) Astana, at 4-10
10. Louis Meintjes (RSA) MTN-Qhubeka, at 6-10